Priority on Street Crime

September 04, 1993

Lynne Battaglia, the United States attorney-designate for Maryland, is on the right track when she says she wants to make street crime in Baltimore her top priority. Muggings, break-ins, hold-ups and assaults are, as she says, not only making life hell for those who live here, but are driving good citizens to the suburbs. The city itself is a victim.

Most U.S. attorneys prefer to assign higher priorities to other transgressions -- political corruption, civil rights, white-collar crime, especially of the financial sort. That is traditional. But things seem to be changing, and people like Ms. Battaglia are in the vanguard.

Attorney General Janet Reno is on record as wanting to see the federal government play a larger role in fighting the sort of crime that Ms. Battaglia targets. Liberal Democrats like Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the former mayor of San Francisco, have called for a federal war against crime. President Clinton has said that he is eager to sign a new, tough omnibus anti-crime bill, somewhat like a version pushed in recent years by Democrats in Congress. He endorsed the efforts of Sen. Joe Biden and Rep. Jack Brooks, who have introduced similar but not quite identical bills this year. Some features are aimed at winning Republican support. For example, paying for tens of thousands of additional local law enforcement officers and limiting delays in finalizing death sentences. Liberal (and moderate) Democrats like the core feature -- the Brady bill, requiring a waiting period and background check for handgun purchases.

Conservative Republicans Bob Dole of Kansas and Orrin Hatch have introduced their own "Neighborhood Security Act of 1993." Senator Dole says he believes the two sides can work things out. We hope so. For two years running, the Democratic version of the comprehensive anti-crime bill failed in the Senate, largely because many Republicans wouldn't go along with the Brady bill. We don't understand this. It is what the public wants and it is what local police and prosecutors want.

Public and police and Democrats in Congress also want something done about the availability of assault-type weapons. The president took a good but small step by issuing an executive order limiting imports of such, but more needs to be done by legislation.

Congress needs also to add to the number of acts in which using certain weapons is a federal crime. That would make it easier for local law enforcement and for U.S. attorneys to go after many dangerous thugs now off-limits to them. The sooner a comprehensive anti-crime bill is on the books, the better Ms. Battaglia and other U.S. attorneys can give street crime the attention it deserves.

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